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Lies and truths and what's in between

The question of what's good - what's best - is always a tricky one, especially when we're practically required these days to do a "top 10 of such and such" for every single thing. Best albums, best movies Smoke and of course best books, an impossible task for one person because no one person can read all the books that come out during the year. That's why I cheat and run a quasi list of the best-reviewed books by Herald reviewers. You can read the story here.

Which brings me to the point: I read many of the books mentioned but not all of them, and one of the ones I didn't read was Denis Johnson's Vietnam novel Tree of Smoke, which won the National Book Award and had critics (including the very smart guy who reviewed it for the Miami Herald) in rapture. Everyone from Philip Roth to the feared Michiko Kakutani at the NYT has gushed over it (and Ms. Kakutani doesn't normally gush, preferring to eviscerate).

B.R. Myers of the Atlantic, however, has a completely different view, one you can and should read here.

This is one of the best book reviews I've read in a long time. Not hampered by length, Mr. Myers lays waste to the notion that Johnson is serving up "prose of amazing power and stylishness" (that's Roth talking). Myers painstakingly deconstructs Johnson's language, its nonsensical rhythms and outright shallowness. Read this review, and you will be curious to lay hands on Tree of Smoke, simply because it sounds so bad.

So why all the reverence?  "[O]nce we Americans have ushered a writer into the contemporary pantheon, we will lie to ourselves to keep him there,"  Myers writes. I don't know if he's right, but he makes a point so compelling I'm considering starting up my Atlantic subscription again.


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Brett Bayne

That was one of the best reviews of a book review I have read in a long time -- thanks, Connie!


It was great, wasn't it? So many long reviews are ponderous. But he had the perfect quotes to back up his premise, and man, he convinced me to keep far away from that book.

Jill Cassidy

possibly the best part of the atlantic article was where myers complimented his fellow (however misguided)reviewers for being better writers than denis johnson.


Another point of view: the freelancer who reviewed this book for me says Myers is a famous crank...not having read anything else by him I can't say. But Andrew sticks by his opinion on Tree of Smoke!

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